|Our Flat Stanley comes|
comes from Tami
Burton and her
students. Here (above)
he is waiting at
Fryazevo station to
board the train to
|On the train.|
be 100, but Stanley
|On the Moscow |
|It's a lot cooler|
A few days later, a newsletter item from a Friends outreach in another part of the world gave me more food for thought. It reported on Friends conducting baptism services for a number of families. One visitor from the USA wrote, "Many of us had only observed a few baptism services growing up in the Friends Church, so this was an interesting experience for us.."
The report contained a number of other interesting points--the excitement in the families' faces bearing testimony to the Holy Spirit in this step they were taking; the courage required to make such a public expression in their social context; and the fact that there is written paperwork involved with becoming baptized--paperwork that goes to the authorities and is an additional act of bold testimony. We're asked to pray for the yearly meeting; its ministry of public baptisms is described as "a very visible expression of lives devoted to Christ."
Fascinating! To risk oversimplifying, it's as if 375 years ago in Great Britain, Friends bore social risks by not being outwardly baptized upon making a Christian commitment; now these new believers are running a social risk by being baptized upon making that same kind of commitment.
I haven't asked whether water baptism is being presented to these new Friends as a theological imperative; I suspect not. What impresses me about this story is their deep desire to make a public commitment, and this practice is the outward form that is presented to them as a way of doing that.
Nearly two years ago I posted some thoughts on baptism here on my blog. I'm not going to repeat them now; at that point I was mainly dealing with the emotional importance of initiation and the need for Friends to have a conversation about how we (often inadequately) address that topic. This news item about the newly baptized Quakers adds a dimension I only vaguely touched on before--the public nature of the testimony.
Most of us who try to describe or shape normative Quaker faith and practice in the West operate in a context of social safety--a safely partly based on social class and partly based on our societies' trivializing and privatizing religion. When we traditional Quakers begin harrumphing about water baptism among Friends, we ought to pause humbly and think about that safety factor. What did we gain and lose by committing to the household of faith through the Quaker door? Did our faces shine with the confirming presence of the Holy Spirit?
I don't want to argue for the thrill of public piety, which is not a reliable long-term indicator of faithfulness. (The impermanence of emotional commitments is an old theme.) All the classic revivals in Christian history had a prophetic, ethical dimension. True, different people have different gifts, so not every new believer will be a prophet. And, true, sometimes simply declaring oneself to be a religious minority in a repressive culture is an act of prophetic courage. But Jesus is not a flag to wave enthusiastically over "our" religious camp as against "their" religious camp. When believers are on the move in a society (and, importantly, when that move is self-giving, not demanding privileges!), history tells us that important things happen--things relating to justice, equality, education, hope. I pray that those things are and will be happening where our new Friends were baptized.
In comparison to all that, the adoption of one or another way of celebrating Christian initiation may take its proper perspective. But that perspective is not insignificant. Early Friends' rejection of the religion industry and its hierarchies and ceremonies was not for the purpose of avoiding irritating the eternal seeker or weakening biblical authority; they experienced Christ coming to teach his people himself, and refused to set up yet another intermediate structure. All I ask is that we contemporary Friends do the same. At some point, all new Friends deserve to learn the full picture of our radical approach to Spirit-led worship and community--not as rigid quakerly folkways but as a costly heritage of discipleship. Then: if the Holy Spirit is in it, please splash away and I'll keep my doubts to myself. If not, please don't lead us back into shadows and forms.
Whatever I might have said in this post a couple of weeks ago, most British Friends do identify as Christian, according to survey results published in Katharine Mellor's MPhil dissertation, Christian belief in the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers): A response to the claim that British Friends are post-Christian. The dissertation is available in PDF form here (registration may be required). The full work includes a number of nuances that should prevent playing fast and loose with the numbers, but in case you can't wait for the bottom line: Mellor finds that, of her 1,035 respondents, "...863 or 83.4% indicated that they believe in God. 751, or 72.6% of those who took part, indicated that they consider themselves to be Christian. 833, or 80.5% of those who took part, indicated that they would answer that they are Christian on an anonymous survey. Fewer than 5% of those who took part in the survey are clearly not Christian. This research suggests that the majority in the Religious Society of Friends in Britain still considers Quakers to be Christian."
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